Earlier this year, country singer Chase Rice released a standard type of country song: a good old-fashioned sex jam.
"What if that kitchen table gets a wreck?" he growls. "Yeah, plates crashing down, with my breath on your neck ... Answer me baby, with nothing but your body/Your hands got a crazy way of talkin' naughty."
Those aren't unusual lyrics for Rice, whose breakout single was "Ready Set Roll," in which he boasted to his ladyfriend he could rock her world in his car. But when "Whisper" was released in February, Rice pulled a surprising move: He penned a candid letter to his fans, openly admitting the song has a real lack of substance.
"I'm not ignorant, there are a lot of people out there waiting for country music to find a little more depth and meaning," Rice wrote. "Well, I agree with you. Country music deserves that. ("Whisper") may not be what you're looking for yet, but that's OK, because music was not meant to be heard in singles, but in albums."
Rice, who is a scheduled presenter at the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday night, emphasized "album" four more times; "Whisper" is merely the first single off his upcoming sophomore album, which he promises has a wide range of topics. If Rice's defensive stance strikes you as odd, you're not alone. Artists don't typically preemptively disparage their own music. What kind of message does that send?
Rice is just one in a series of male country artists (from Dierks Bentley to Scotty McCreery to Joe Nichols) taking an apologetic, resigned tone toward their new music, particularly uptempo party songs.
It's understandable: In the last couple years, Nashville has received serious backlash for the rise of "bro country," the carefree sub-genre that revels in beer, trucks, girls, and drinking beer in trucks with girls. Many in the industry are well aware of the criticism and looking for more substantive themes, particularly after the stunning rise of Chris Stapleton, a traditional artist who proved deep music still sells. Recently, country singers have seen huge results with serious songs, such as Thomas Rhett's unstoppable "Die a Happy Man," Cole Swindell's mournful "You Should Be Here," and Tim McGraw's thoughtful "Humble and Kind," which he'll perform at the ACMs.
There's one problem: Lighthearted, upbeat songs are still extremely popular, especially on radio. And if country radio loves something, that's what you give them. In country music, a label will generally only release an album if one of its singles succeeds on the radio first. Some of country's best male voices (Josh Turner, Kip Moore, Brothers Osborne) have seen albums stuck in limbo for years because they failed to get a radio hit.
There's an especially big demand for party- and booze-themed tunes during the upcoming summer concert season. A surefire way to for fans to buy a ticket to your tour - the way you make big money these days - is if you have a smash single. And in the summer, people want to dance. For male singers, that means lots of pressure to follow the lead of "bro country" kings such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
For instance, Dustin Lynch had an unusual experience, as he launched his career with love ballad "Cowboys and Angels" in 2012; but was eager to follow it up with a stream with fast-moving singles like "Hell of a Night" and "She Cranks My Tractor," to get people dancing at his concerts.
"It kills me, because most of my favorite songs I've written are ballads with depth," he told The Washington Post at Nashville's Country Radio Seminar (CRS), a conference for radio programmers in February. "It stinks because most of the world will never get to hear my favorite stuff I've written. But that's the world we live in. We live in a world of, 'What is radio going to want to play, and what's going to get people moving that booty at the show?"
Lately, some singers have been upfront about this dilemma. During a show at CRS, Dierks Bentley thanked programmers in the audience for playing his cheeky rebound anthem "Somewhere on a Beach" ("Got a new girl, she got it going on/We drink all day, and party all night, I'm way too gone to have you on my mind") so he can release his record and "get some heavier stuff out there."
Rice echoed the same idea when he elaborated on his "Whisper" letter in an interview with Sirius XM Radio, saying the idea for the song's release was, "Well, let's just put it out first, and almost get it out of the way.'"
The strategy is working brilliantly for Bentley, whose "Somewhere on a Beach" is at No. 9 on radio and No. 6 on Billboard country charts. It's too early to tell the fate of Rice's "Whisper," which saw modest sales when it was released in February yet hasn't hit the radio Top 50.
Trying to appeal to the masses doesn't always work: In an interview late last summer with Rolling Stone, former "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery didn't appear completely comfortable with his new single "Southern Belle," a bouncy ode to ladies from the South ("Saturday night with the red lipstick ... Sunday morning with the honey biscuits") and a far cry from his more innocent songs. "This is probably about as far left as we'll go," he assured his fans. Unfortunately, the song bombed; McCreery was dropped from his label this year.
Meanwhile, Joe Nichols, who has maintained a fairly consistent track record since the early 2000s, told Rolling Stone that what surprises him about the genre these days is "Just that kind of grumbling of, 'What the hell are we doing?' I've heard that from so many people that have had monstrous success over the last five years doing the stuff that's more fluff than depth."
Nichols could have been speaking about himself, as he's done well with poppy hits like "Yeah" and "Sunny and 75,"; he sure doesn't sound happy talking about his current music. "If I could just make the record I wanted to make, I'd hire the country-est guys in Nashville," he told the magazine a couple months later, though added sadly, "But I'm not that rich."
"Stars like Nichols rarely speak like passionate artists any more - they speak like business people who believe that making music means changing their output to match the public's taste at that moment," Guardian country music writer Grady Smith wrote this past fall.
It's true - and perhaps why breakout band Old Dominion titled its freshman album "Meat and Candy" late last year, a reference to their songs having substance and fun. Though if Rice's letter and other singers' reactions are any indication, some may be on the verge of losing their patience with how the business works.
Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Emily Yahr · ENTERTAINMENT, MUSIC · Mar 31, 2016 - 9:09 AM